Born on 6th December 1915, V. Madhavan Nair (Mali) was an illustrious son of an illustrious father. The father, T. K. Velu Pillai, known as Sadasya Thilakan, was the first elected Deputy Speaker of the Travancore Legislative Assembly, Emeritus Professor of the Law College and member of the Senate of Travancore and Madras Universities. Sadasya Thilakan’s monumental work in 4 volumes – the Travancore State Manual – is still one of the most authoritative reference books on matters pertaining to the erstwhile princely state. Sri Sooranad Kunjan Pillai, the famous prodigious scholar and man of letters, was Sadasya Thilakan’s assistant in this venture.
Mali grew up amidst all the comforts and advantages of an affluent and influential family. Scholars and statesmen were frequent visitors to his house. Literature and music added to the ambience of his childhood. The cultured atmosphere at home helped in no small measure to mould his tastes and aptitudes in later life. After completing his schooling at the Model School, Trivandrum, Madhavan Nair obtained his BA degree from the Law College, Trivandrum. Though he enrolled at the Bar, he did not practice law. Thus what would have been surely a serious loss to the world of laws turned out to be a long-standing gain to the world of letters.
Sport was Mali’s earliest sphere of activity. He excelled in all games but was especially outstanding in tennis and high jump. In both events he was ranked number one in the State. With little or no formal coaching, he had evolved a perfect style of his own that combined grace, power and accuracy. On the sports field, Mali was a delight to watch. He also played and won many tournaments in basketball, volleyball and table tennis. A vast array of silver trophies bears testimony to his prowess in various events.
Mali loved all types of music, but Carnatic Music occupied pride of place in his heart. A day without music was a dull day indeed for him. And, of course, it goes without saying he had a passion for literature. Karnasapatham, the Kathakali Padam written by Mali for which he himself had set ragas, is a manifestation of how music blended with lyrics in his brilliant mind.
Mali started his official career as a journalist in the Free Press journal and the British Ministry of Broadcasting. He also edited and published a magazine from Madras, 'Keralodayam.’ He forayed into the field of broadcasting by joining All India Radio, Trivandrum, in the officer’s cadre in 1950. He worked tirelessly to develop programmes for the newly formed station, many of which, such as Balalokam and Rashmi, are popular to date. He was responsible for screening music artistes for AIR. He unearthed the works of numerous composers like Irayimman Thampi, Kuttikunju Thankachi and K.C. Kesava Pillai, had them notated, broadcast and popularised all over Kerala. Inclusion of Malayalam songs and several programmes based on classical and semi classical music started with him. He also introduced Kathakali music and folk music to radio. He wrote and produced many radio plays which are regarded as classics.
Mali is best known as a writer of children’s literature. Ironically, this phase of his career came rather late in life. He approached the subject of children’s literature with a deep sense of responsibility and his books are the result of scholarship in combination with a vivid and child-like imagination. His original novels ‘Circus,’ ‘Porattam,’ ‘Kishkindha,’ ‘Jantustan,’ the Sarvajith trilogy and his innumerable short stories are a pure source of delight for children of varying ages. His ‘Mali Ramayanam,’ ‘Mali Bhagavatham’ and other volumes of stories from the Puranas have been many a child’s first introduction to our glorious heritage. With these books, he came to be acknowledged as a master of abridgement. Most of his books (over 53) are in Malayalam. Some of them have been translated into English by himself. His writing style is unique, distinct, simple and beautiful. His books have encouraged the habit of reading and inculcated a sense of values in children for generations.
Mali was a master story teller and has conducted numerous story-telling sessions, entertaining hundreds of children. His style of narration was noteworthy for the fact that every story Mali told (or wrote) carried a message of core Indian values.
Mali’s writings include literature for adults as well. His play 'Iravikkutty Pillai' played to a capacity audience in Madras. His presentation of Valmiki Ramayanam and Mahabharatham are remarkable for the dignity and grandeur of their content and his inimitable power over the Malayalam language. His radio plays are still unrivalled. His last works included a book on architecture and one on sports.
Mali’s contributions to music were not limited to the innovations he created in the AIR programmes. His artistic temperament was complemented by a zeal for learning and persistence for perfection. This is evident in his outstanding research work ‘Kerala Sangeetham,’ which is comparable to any doctoral thesis. The work is a unique and authoritative study of the origin and development of music in Kerala and has been a reference book for serious students of music.
Love for Kathakali coursed through Mali’s veins throughout his life. Prominent dailies such as The Hindu and The Statesman used to carry his scholarly articles on Kathakali during the early ’50s, thus spreading the glory of the art among aesthetes across India. Mali’s passion for Kathakali inspired him to write ‘Karnasapatham’ which quickly earned its place amongst the classics. The success and impact of the play has stood the test of time with the play having been staged close to 20,000 times to date.
Mali’s incredibly vibrant mind, which had been a source of constant inspiration and incessant ideas, was stilled on the 2nd July 1994. However, his name and work continue to enthral minds young and old, and the legend lives on…